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Why Alcoholics Aren’t a Joke’s Punch Line

I hear the joke all the time.

“Lehigh is a bunch of alcoholics.”

Laughter.

“I hear when alumni visit, they have to host AA meetings every morning because they drink so much.”

Laughter.

“I blacked out everyday this week. Ha, I’m such an alcoholic.”

And then everyone laughs because they think it’s a joke and drinking alcohol is fun so why not find it funny?

I have plenty of good reasons why. Because when I hear you say that, I cringe. You say alcoholic, and I’m triggered. You’re thinking of frat basements and I’m thinking of the person in my life who is an alcoholic curled up on the floor unconscious, their whereabouts unknown, tempting fate and waiting for the cops to find them before it’s too late and they overdose.

When you joke about blacking out so much and how you could have died, I think about how many times I’ve stood crying on the phone finding out the person almost died but was saved, about how they flat-lined, but were resuscitated in time. I think about how many times I thought about their funeral and packing up my whole life and throwing it away to mourn them. I think about how exhausting it is to wait to see if someone kills themselves, how exhausting it is to wait for someone once they’ve gone missing to find out how the ending of this spiral will play out. To wonder how long I’ll have to watch that hellish cycle of dying and rebuilding.

I think about their broken promises of recovery. I think about them alone in a homeless shelter, overwhelmed by all of the progress they have to make again, ashamed at how far they’ve fallen all over again just so they could ease their pain with a bottle of Jagermeister. I think about the people they were willing to leave behind for a shot of whiskey. I question how much they actually even care about me.

I feel abandoned, ashamed, terrified, exhausted, livid and little all at once and all of those emotions latch on somewhere deep inside of me and I push them away because I’m a college student and I want to have fun, to be with my friends, and, yes, even to party. And when you say that, I feel a piece of those dreadful feelings rise up in me all over again.

You joke about AA and Al-Anon, and I think about the people in my life affected by the alcoholic, attending as many meetings as they can sometimes because they feel the pain even more intensely than I do.  I think about how they cling to those meetings like life, as they wait to hear God’s verdict on whether our alcoholic will be sentenced to death this time for their actions. I think about the solemn faces in that meeting room, some so desperate for support and solace. I think about how those meetings give them hope. It keeps them fighting for another day.

I realize how I’m lucky that my situation isn’t worse. That they could be dead. That others have stood over their loved one’s grave, wishing they could still fight for their lives, but also just exhausted after dealing with the alcoholic for so long. I’m lucky the abuse wasn’t worse, even though I wouldn’t wish what I have lived through on anyone.

There are some who experienced an alcoholic just like mine, in powerful, devastating spurts. Some experience it for years, some feel subtly drained every day and others experience horrifying violence. Some people may never speak about it. Some may be too scared to say anything. For those people, please know you are not alone. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can explain what it’s like for me.

And let me be clear, I’m not against alcohol. I’ve made my peace with it. The abuser is the one choosing their drug and, on it’s own, alcohol can be fun. I enjoy it. And I don’t care that other people go out and enjoy it too. I don’t care that you get drunk, I don’t care that you go out most nights of the week. I am not in a place to judge you and your drinking habits, only you can. I’m not going out and secretly counting how many cups of grain you have. It’s not my business.

But sometimes I won’t go out. Sometimes when the alcoholic in my life is in a bad place, I just can’t go. Seeing the alcohol makes me think of them, it makes me wonder if they are safe, if they have recovered. It makes me sick to think about how close I was to almost losing them, how little control I have, how unfair it feels that they wouldn’t reach out to any of the people close to them for help. How broken they must be. I’m mad and close to tears and I don’t want to be at a bar or a party being reminded of it. Don’t make me. Don’t tell me going out is the best way to get over it.

And if you really care about me, maybe ditch a night out during those times and be the friend who distracts me. I’ll share my food; we can watch a movie. We don’t have to talk about what’s going on, I don’t expect you to understand it like I do. But it will mean the world to me to have you there.

I want to enjoy college and, most of the time, I do. I like going out. I like thinking about other things than the problems unfolding outside of campus. But when I hear people make a joke out of my pain, when I hear people mindlessly belittle what my family and I go through, I can’t ignore it.

Please think of people like me. Please don’t joke about alcoholism. 

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